Architectural writer, Sean O’Keefe gathers keen insights on the intersection of place and possibility from a few in the know
Placemaking – A Round Table Conversation
Architecture begins with three fundamentals, defined by Roman architect, engineer, and builder Vitruvius as “Commodity, Firmness, and Delight” or said another way – Purpose, Structure, and Pleasure. Placemaking strives to take those ambitions a step further by celebrating the public spaces that connect us to our homes, our work, our fun, and to one another. From imagining the possibilities to helping others realize them on the grandest scale, placemaking is about people. Colorado Construction and Design was pleased to convene a roundtable discussion to learn more about the triumphs, challenges, and state of placemaking in Colorado through an esteemed panel of professionals.
Charlie Nicola – Brookfield Properties
A Senior Vice President with Brookfield Properties, for the last 18 years Charlie Nicola has been a leading figure in the redevelopment of the former Stapleton International Airport into a thriving community of 12 neighborhoods. Prior to that he had a hand in the development of Coors Field and takes pride in the possibility of place as a social stimulant. Despite the risk and responsibility of development, Charlie truly enjoys the collaboration and comradery of the creative processes that are the foundation of placemaking. The greatest rewards of his work are in seeing spaces becomes places when they are ignited by people and purpose.
Laurel Raines – Dig Studio
A founding partner at Dig Studio, landscape architect Laurel Raines has positively shaped the exterior public realm of neighborhoods throughout Denver and Rocky Mountain communities for over thirty years. After working as a Design Principal with the international landscape architecture firms of EDAW and AECOM, Laurel formed her own firm, Dig Studio, in 2012. She has spearheaded project initiatives which have changed community perceptions of the role parks, plazas and streetscapes play in evolving a Western landscape aesthetic. Today Dig Studio is leading transformational redevelopment projects that are positively reshaping Denver’s urban fabric.
Mitch Black – Norris Design
Mitch Black will tell you that storytelling is central to placemaking. He’s been on the front lines of placemaking for the last 25 years as a planner and landscape architect at Norris Design, where he is a principal. He enjoys helping to lead a firm with a strong and diverse portfolio and seeing the cross-pollination of ideas that come from many different approaches to landscape design, planning, and real estate branding. From corporate settings to highly-animated community gathering, T.O.D., sports and streetscape projects, where the built environment meets the natural one, Black and the Norris Design team help clients plan a vision and bring it to life.
John Buteyn – Colorado Hardscapes
John Buteyn was 18 when he became the first person the owner of Colorado Hardscapes hired after his own two sons. Forty-seven years and a few job descriptions later, John and everyone at Colorado Hardscapes still apply curiosity and commitment to building the hardscape features that are the infrastructure of place. Building on three generations of both utilitarian flatwork and decorative concrete, Colorado Hardscapes’ expertise also includes water features, sculpted concrete and rockwork, and interior concrete. Noteworthy landmarks include Denver Union Station, the Streets at Southglenn, and the massive, new Gaylord Rockies Hotel and Convention Center.
What makes a design more than design, what makes it a place.
“Every place starts with the site,” says Mitch Black. Design influences start with the site’s attributes, context, audience, and purpose. The positives and negatives of the physical environment surrounding the project all have an important role in shaping the initial concept. Amazing view planes must be preserved and framed by the site. Accounting for rough edges in gritty urban or industrial settings can be done through buffering or embracing those attributes, but decisions must be holistic, with long-term objectives in mind. “Placemaking is about storytelling, every site that becomes a place must tell a story and the story must have meaning to the people who use the site.”
Charlie Nicola agrees, suggesting that the public’s embrace of place happens when design fosters human interaction and the place becomes a conduit for social connectivity.
“There has to be some there, there,” says Nicola succinctly. In order for a place to attract sustained social attention and become a routinely popular destination, it needs to have some meaningful gravity of its own. From the development perspective, placemaking is often about finding the path of least resistance to the critical mass. Nicola’s work on Coors Field centered on capturing a postcard corner at 20th and Blake Street in front of the ball park. Working with Laurel Raines, placemaking gestures begin building anticipation for the excitement of gameday several blocks away. A combination of street lighting, landscape features, and artistic elements help bring the massive building down to human scale. “Effective placemaking happens when the site’s positives spread beyond the original boundaries, allowing that sense of place to grow positively beyond the site as it has in the case of the Ballpark neighborhood.”
Making a positive contribution that extends further than aesthetics is fundamental to Laurel Raines’ work at Dig Studio.
“Communication, collaboration, commitment, community, and care,” she shares. “These are the fundamentals of effective design, in placemaking they must converge to produce a space that makes life better for all.”
There are many competing and, occasionally, contradictory factors that drive decision making in commercial development. How do you keep the importance of place alive in that conversation?
“From an investment point of view, we have to understand the importance of place as part of the commitment we make to the communities we are working in,” says Nicola. “If it matters, then it matters.”
Effective development is about getting more for your investment, not less. Nicola relies on the thoughtful expertise of firms like Norris Design, Dig Studio, and Colorado Hardscapes to give him the raw, honest realities of what he is asking for and what it costs.
“Certain things, like sidewalks, have to be built, and there are any number of design treatments that can be applied to a sidewalk to bring it to life,” says Black. “We model design solutions and costs concurrently and identify key features of the landscape design and site ornamentation that establish it as a place.”
Echoing Raines’ sentiments on collaboration, communication, and commitment, all agree designing something that can be built and maintained is the result of distilling lots of good ideas from lots of determined professionals into a cohesive whole. Advance coordination with a decorative concrete contractor or other acutely specialized contractors in the design phase is the surest way to eliminate cost-cutting measures that can diminish the presence of important components somewhere between concept and completion.
“I really love watching children run through the water features we created at Denver Union Station and Stapleton,” says John Buteyn. “In everyday use, you can see which elements engage people and make them want to stay.” Elements that make people want to linger are essential, but owners and designers must also have an appreciation for the fact that water jets and fountain features have long-term costs. Annual maintenance on a complicated water feature can be as much as five percent of the construction costs, a financial reality that must be understood from inception. If not, the risk is a white elephant, an undesirable possession that is simply too expensive to maintain in proportion to use but difficult to discard profitably.
What is the state of placemaking in Colorado today?
“In multi-family housing developments plenty of non-public green space is being accounted for,” says Raines. “The more interesting opportunities to me are in urban settings where the integration of parks and green space has not kept pace with the influx of new residents – a challenge Denver Parks and the Downtown Denver Partnership are actively addressing.” Indeed, a 2016 study by University of Denver graduate student Ryan Keeney while working with Denver Infill found that a total of 237 acres were exclusively committed to surface lot parking in downtown Denver alone.
The Heron Pond / Carpio-Sanguinette Park Master Plan + Design commissioned by the City and County of Denver aims to revitalize a series of isolated parcels along the South Platte River as the largest natural area in the Denver park system.
Dig Studio is currently in the midst of an urban reclamation project for the City and County of Denver. The Heron Pond / Carpio-Sanguinette Park Master Plan + Design aims to unify multiple City-owned properties trapped along a forgotten stretch of the South Platte that have fallen victim to neglect and environmental misuse. The plan envisions more than 80 acres along this blunt edge of industrialization as the largest natural area in the Denver Park System.
“In many urban projects, we are seeing smaller landscaped spaces that are more densely amenitized,” says Black. The trend is indeed evident in many of the office, mixed-use, and multi-unit living projects taking over Denver’s surface lots as they are redeveloped, each bedecked in a collection of outdoor lounges, pool decks, plaza entryways, and terrace overlooks. Bringing the outside in, planters, irrigation, drainage, year-round vegetation, and Colorado sunshine are also prevalent in today’s well-developed commercial properties.
In Colorado’s smaller communities, the Round Table participants generally applauded municipal clients for getting ahead of future congestion by effectively incorporating green spacing in governmental development and encouraging it in the commercial sector. Norris Design is working on Miller’s Landing, a mixed-use development intended to connect the town’s newly developed Phillip S. Miller Park with Castle Rock’s downtown core. The project seeks to remediate nearly 100 acres of former landfill with a mix of uses like office, hotel, entertainment, and retail joined by a series of interconnected public spaces. Big or small, urban or remote, placemaking requires a team of professionals able to work effectively with the community to understand the local concerns, needs, and wants that should beneficially influence the place they create.
“Building community buy-in is an important part of placemaking especially when change is on the table,” says Raines. Community outreach processes implemented by designers and developers often help residents understand how vibrant public spaces can improve human connections and quality of life.
Miller’s Landing in Castle Rock is a positive example of sustainable suburban forethought and encouraging greenspace development in stride with commercial investments.
What are the challenges of placemaking?
“The honest answer is entitlements,” says Nicola, a statement that is greeted by a palatable sense of agreement around the table. Beyond his leadership in the creation of Coors Field and Stapleton, Nicola was the Construction Director and Owner’s Representative for the Denver Bronco’s $400 million stadium and he’s spent decades on projects with the highest levels of complexity the field has to offer.
“Placemaking is about establishing a vision and achieving it. The beneficiaries of better places are communities,” continues Nicola. “I solve the problem of red-tape by hiring the best consultants I can find and asking for a lot.”
Black and Raines nod knowingly and the group discusses recurring entitlement and approval process problems that design and construction projects of every magnitude and purpose seem to face. Many in the industry are fatigued by continually having to routinely build new relationships with individual personalities at several entities with potentially subjective and, occasionally, contradictory interpretations of building codes and regulations on every project they undertake. Many suburban municipalities also seem to share a certain sense of stubbornness on collaboration. A municipality’s unwillingness to move much further than their own initial understanding can lead to a repetitive, formulaic expression of place. Even routine requirements like a road closure can feel contentious on the consultant’s side of the counter, where it’s best to simply try to follow the rules and be proactive with permitting when possible.
“Once you get the place designed, the work isn’t over,” says Black of the process of turning his drawings over to a contractor for execution and then shepherding it for many months while the work is realized. Projects remain under pressure throughout construction – affordability issues, schedule, entitlements, approvals, logistics – each of which can degrade a design, if not properly managed. “One of the biggest challenges is making sure the design lasts throughout the process; that the story and design intent are clear in the finished product.”
Buteyn agrees and as the contractor at the table, understands the importance of achieving the owner and designer’s vision down to the smallest detail wherever possible. When the intent is achieved in placemaking it’s usually fairly easy to see if the original vision for a place is successful.
Colorado Hardscapes was involved in the redevelopment of Denver Union Station, and there is likely no better example of effective placemaking in all of Colorado. Where only just a few years ago there was a large neglected property whose only purpose was to serve the nearly-nonexistent Travel by Train crowd, today Denver Union Station is a place filled with people, food, spirits, smiles, profit, possibility, purpose, and play inside and out. An entire new epicenter of the City has emerged in the new heart of Denver, and on a warm summer’s day with nothing to do it’s definitely a special place to be.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to be involved in helping make these places come to life,” finishes Butyen. “Special places are worth the work and worth the investment because special places are where memories are made.”
About the Author:
Sean O’Keefe is an architecture and construction writer who crafts stories and content based on 20 years of experience and a keen interest in the people who make projects happen.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 303.668.0717
Tags: architecture, placemaking, writer